From 2006 to 2016, I ran a website that I called Shy Highway. During that time I produced my second book, The Shyness Guide, then revised it, doubling it in size to what it is today. Along the way though, I got interested in autism.
At first I tried to avoid the autism debate. It was so full of dissension and misunderstanding. But as the research grew increasingly interesting, I got more and more involved.
What are my qualifications to talk about autism? Just that I consider myself to be autistic, as well as shy.
Of course, psychologists and psychiatrists warn you against self-diagnosing. Being in your own body and mind from the time you were born apparently isn’t enough for you to have a valid opinion about who you are.
But if you consider yourself to be shy, it’s a different story. In shyness studies psychologists routinely ask people to declare whether they consider themselves shy or not, and then they treat the responses as significant.
In my case, when I was a boy teachers worried about me, but they apparently had no idea how to deal with a boy who was always alone, who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make friends. Apparently no one in the working-class steeltown where I grew up had heard of autism, so everyone said I was shy, and I went along with it.
Re qualifications though, I did spend 40 years in the personal injury claims business where I had to read psychological reports every day.
Some of those reports involved claims that were headed for trial or arbitration where a lot of money was at stake. Since companies wanted my opinion of their prospects in those disputes, I had to read the reports over and over, comparing them with contrary reports filed by the claimant’s lawyer.
In the course of this, I learned a few things. Then I had a revelation.
I had taken over a file where a middle-aged woman, allegedly as a result of injuries from a motor vehicle accident, had been psychologically disabled for years. A file like hers was thick, made up of several expandable dark brown folders, each containing hundreds of pages, usually about one volume per year.
She had been assessed by three psychologists, and two psychiatrists – and each doctor had come up with a different diagnosis. One psychologist, following his re-assessment of her, changed his diagnosis, so there were six diagnoses.
Now , when I saw that five doctors couldn’t agree on what was wrong with her, my first thought, naturally, was that no one really had any idea what was wrong with her.
She wasn’t a fraud. Among long-term chronically disabled people, outright frauds are very rare, no more than one in a hundred (which is not to say they don’t exaggerate – half our population likes to do that). In her case, she insisted that there was nothing wrong with her, that she would be okay if people would just leave her alone. But she couldn’t work anymore.
As I read her file, I debated with myself the merits of the different reports and diagnoses. Sometimes I leaned towards one, then I would be more persuaded by another – until one day I had this revelation –. Why couldn’t two of them be right? In fact, why couldn’t all of them be right? A case could be made that this woman was suffering from all six conditions.
Now, the significance of this for you and me is this – just because you’ve been diagnosed with something – being on the spectrum for example – or you think you belong there – doesn’t mean you should turn your back on other possibilities.
For example, although I had considered myself a shy loner all my life, I began to realize that I was obviously on the spectrum. I began to explore autism, and found it very helpful in understanding my problem fitting into society. But I never found it necessary to turn my back on shyness. It explains a lot too. And if someone says I’m an introvert, or that I’m social phobic, I’m okay with that too.
So that’s how the Shy Highway went on to become an autistic highway too, except that now I prefer to call it Alternative World, leaving room for other possibilities.